Education institutions in the UAE inspiring sustainability change
As the challenge of building a sustainable world becomes a pressing priority, education institutions hold a crucial role in shaping the future change leaders. They are instrumental in empowering students for the green transition as well as nurturing a generation of environmentally-conscious and responsible citizens.
Schools and higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UAE go beyond their conventional limits, seamlessly integrating a multitude of learning experiences to provide education that spans across disciplines. The overarching goal of these institutions is to prepare learners with the knowledge, skills and values that they need to thrive in an ever-evolving global landscape and create a sustainable and climate-resilient future.
“As higher education responds to changes in the economic and social conditions, it is increasingly clear that acquisition of domain knowledge and skills for better employability is not the only responsibility of HEIs. Translation of acquired knowledge to outcomes for societal transformation is an additional mandate, considering that educational institutions are the incubators for future leaders,” says Dr Srinivasan Madapusi, Director and Senior Professor, BITS Pilani Dubai Campus.
“Agile HEIs have responded by engaging with external stakeholders; for example, by facilitating internships for students and embedding social and corporate responsibilities in the academic environment,” Dr Madapusi points out.
Pivotal change agents
Beyond the obvious threats of climate change, a spectrum of other pressing social, economic, and environmental issues demands immediate attention. Graduates, upon exiting universities, face various challenges, including the complexities of climate policy, biodiversity loss, poverty, inequality, and resource scarcity, among others. Therefore, it is imperative for educational systems to reorient their approach and provide a comprehensive education that empowers students to play an active role in shaping a more promising future.
“We view transformative higher education as a powerful catalyst for societal change, shaping young adults into progressive contributors to the workforce and broader society,” says Dr Aseel Takshe, Associate Professor, Department of Public Health and Faculty of Communication, Arts & Sciences, at Canadian University Dubai (CUD).
“CUD functions as a hub of innovation and a transformative space addressing emerging societal questions. We foster systematic thinking in students about major global challenges like climate change, resource depletion, and biodiversity loss. We incorporate transformative, solution-oriented teaching and learning activities across disciplines,” Dr Takshe says.
Considering that sustainability has environmental, social, and financial dimensions, there are numerous opportunities for universities to integrate it as a core theme across academic curricula and diverse disciplines.
“We, at CUD, have integrated sustainability into various disciplines, including architecture, engineering, and management. A notable interdisciplinary project led to the creation of a smart garbage sorting bin, showcasing our collaborative innovation,” says Dr Takshe, adding, “Our commitment to environmental sustainability is reflected in our BSc in Public Health, which embeds sustainability across all courses.”
Aligning curricula with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, UAE universities are now allowing students to connect their academic pursuits with global challenges and understand the interconnectedness of environmental issues.
At RIT Dubai, for example, students are exposed to 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from the first semester, regardless of their programme, and then they are asked to reflect on all of these goals and expand as they move on in their studies. Some of RIT Dubai’s courses and programmes have also been modified to include the element of sustainability and its applications.
“We focus on sustainability even in engineering programmes. Many of the extracurricular activities that students are involved in such as capstone projects and industry integration, also help them get exposed to many environmental and sustainability issues that are faced by industry partners. This helps them to analyse and solve real world problems in this field,” says Dr Yousef Al Assaf, President, RIT Dubai.
Collaborative programmes, hands-on experiences and research opportunities are other pedagogical approaches that offer students invaluable insights while fostering a sense of responsibility towards sustainable solutions.
Apart from structured activities, students at BITS Dubai undertake various projects and thesis work with faculty members, and many of these projects seek solutions for real-world problems. “Through these activities, students become well-versed in the methodologies that can be deployed later to deliver sustainable solutions in their chosen careers,” explains Dr Madapusi.
Collaborating with community stakeholders, universities also actively engage in region-specific research and project initiatives that address the unique challenges and opportunities within the local context. This approach ensures that solutions are tailored to the specific needs of the community and contribute to sustainable development on a local scale.
“Due to variations in environment, societal patterns, and geographical conditions, importing solutions that worked elsewhere often proves challenging to implement. This is why it’s important to develop localised solutions. We, at RIT Dubai, have been supporting and calling for local research that are relevant for the Middle East,” says Dr Al Assaf.
RIT Dubai has recently worked on a unique project that used geothermal energy for cooling. “We managed to get a 20 per cent efficiency. It has been tested on campus and is currently being tested at one of the villas in Dubai. We are looking to deploy it later in several other places in the city,” says Dr Al Assaf.
Furthermore, RIT Dubai is engaged in several other projects such as converting wastes from palm trees to biofuels and collaborating with the local automotive industry partners to create a 3D printing hub, using environmental-friendly materials.
These initiatives align with its broader mission, as the university establishes the energy and sustainability centre to advance education, training and research in these crucial domains. “The centre will have wind turbines, 3D printed house, geothermal energy calculation system and solar panels along with an open lab for environmental testing. The idea is to create a hub that focuses on environment and sustainability and acts as an empowerment platform for people who are looking for an area to ideate and execute environment-related solutions. We will work in partnerships with them to make sure that their solutions are governed and accepted,” says Dr Assaf.
Research-focussed HEIs are also increasingly emphasising cutting-edge research in deep tech that are critical for addressing current and future global environmental issues.
“Funding agencies now insist on the incorporation of sustainability as a key component in the research outcomes. At BITS Dubai, we have started a competitive cross-disciplinary research fund initiative that supports high quality research, pools talent from different disciplines, and promotes cross-pollination of ideas and synergy,” says Dr Madapusi.
The trajectory of sustainability education doesn’t begin solely at the higher education level; it begins early on in schools and even at early learning centres. Schools in the UAE empower children to cultivate awareness about conservation and environmental sustainability through multiple educational approaches and engaging activities.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are integrated in every GEMS school’s curriculum. “Through the problem-based learning approach, students are engaged in critical thinking discussions about the complexities of climate change, exploring the ethical, economical, and political aspects of climate solutions,” says Matthew Burfield, Senior Vice President – Education at GEMS Education and Executive Principal/ CEO of GEMS Founders School – Dubai.
“Students also participate in hands-on activities, projects, and initiatives related to environmental sustainability and climate action, allowing them to see the impact of their actions and be a part of the solution,” he says.
Across the GEMS Education network, students also have the opportunity to take part in a wide range of initiatives. These include community engagement projects, tree-planting and clean-up days, climate action workshops, guest speaker series, environmental debates, youth climate summits, sustainable innovation showcases, and climate hackathons.
Meanwhile GEMS Education has launched a net-zero energy campus to advance the UAE’s sustainability agenda. GEMS Founders School – Masdar City (GFA) is purpose-built using cutting-edge materials and technology, incorporating clever architectural elements to substantially lower its carbon footprint, conserve resources and minimise waste.
One of the UAE’s oldest schools, American School of Dubai prioritises sustainability in both curricular and co-curricular areas. ASD embeds sustainability throughout the school’s core curriculum, whether it is through systems thinking activities; the inspection of beehives in its bee garden; the design and innovation approaches to prototyping solutions to issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals; or initiatives to address ways to make the school campus more sustainable.
“Two key ingredients of this learning process are the connection to the curriculum and the presence of an authentic action. They complement each other very well in what we often refer to as Changemaker Education,” says Laurence Myers, Service Learning Coordinator at ASD.
“Another important aspect of our curricular work is our Edible Education programme which focuses on food as a global sustainability-related issue. From growing to preparing and consuming to the reduction of food wastes, our school strives to be the example of what we teach about in our classes every day,” Myers adds.
In Sharjah, American School of Creative Science – Maliha has a curriculum immersed in sustainability, highlighting environmental stewardship and ethical leadership.
“Through the seamless integration of sustainability principles, community partnerships, and advocacy for green initiatives, students are given a deep understanding of global challenges. This approach fuels critical thinking and innovation, empowering them to enthusiastically contribute to a sustainable future,” says Principal Majd Hussain.
Meanwhile, American School of Creative Science - Nad Al Sheba has set up an eco-committee consisting of students, staff and administration.
“The school is working collaboratively to achieve its student-driven sustainability targets, empowering learners to lead our Green Flag application for the Eco-Schools programme this academic year and contribute to the school and the local community,” says Principal Sara Hollis.
“At ASCS, our school community is committed to working together to reinforce the UAE’s lessons of resilience, leadership, and civic duty as we create an environment where students take pride in their shared UAE values. They will leave us upon graduation as potential future leaders who will work to benefit the future of the UAE in the years to come,” she adds.
As these education institutions nurture environmentally conscious minds and foster an understanding of sustainable practices, they not only shape future change leaders but also advance the UAE’s green agenda. ●